Von Neumann Machines

The Independent reports:

Experts warn of danger that the new viral strains created by mixing bird-flu virus with human influenza could escape from the laboratory to cause a global pandemic killing millions of people.

I recall some years back, how Cornell University researchers created a machine that can build copies of itself. It was essentially a breakthrough ‘proof of a concept’ that was first formulated in the 1940s by the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann. Von Neumann conceptualized the basic components of a self-replicating machine and, inadvertently, ‘predicted’ the yet-to-be-discovered phenomenon of DNA. The gedanken experiment of aVon Neumann machinewas born.

In pioneering ‘conceptual research’ surrounding nanotechnology, figures such as Eric Drexler, Hans Moravec, and Ray Kurzweil have posited the conceptual possibilities of Von Neumann machines exploring the universe: such probes would make their way to a planet, reproduce themselves, and then repeat the process. A growing fleet of such probes would increase at an exponential rate.

At their most optimistically speculative extreme, transhumanists such as Moravec put forward the following possibility:

At the nano-level, we will someday be able to re-arrange a molecule of X to become a molecule of Y, effectively allowing us to ‘change matter’ and change reality itself. Here is a recent report from the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology asserting that we are closer to ‘molecular manufacturing’ than previously thought.B) Premise A coupled with the concept of Von Neumann probes will mean that all of reality in the known universe could someday be fully ‘mapped out’ by probes.C) The information (aka matter) of all such probes could be centralized in a distributed computer network (think ‘the internet’ or the A.I. in The Matrix).D) Such a distributed network would ‘be’ all known reality and, as such, would be tantamount to God.

Part D of this chain (singularity) has a difficult hurdle in John Searle’s famous Chinese Room problem. I side with the New Mysterians (Searle, Nagel, McGinn) in believing this hurdle cannot, in principle, be overcome by any artificial intelligence at any point in the future.

The dark side of nanotechnology and self-replicating machines is real. Given the trajectories of globalization, modern communications, and economies of scale, the possibility of the total destruction of mankind from malicious nanotechnology run amok is, at least to me, all-but-inevitable.

Such a scenario has been referred to as the ‘grey goo possibility. Wikipedia has a good summary of the ‘grey goo’ concept as follows:

Grey goo, a term coined by nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler, refers to a hypothetical end-of-the-world event involving nanotechnology in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all life on Earth while building more of themselves (a scenario known as ecophagy). It is usually used in a science fictional context. In a worst-case scenario, all of the matter in the universe could be turned into goo (with “goo” meaning a large mass of replicating nanomachines lacking large-scale structure, which may or may not actually appear goo-like), killing the universe’s residents. The disaster could result from an accidental mutation in a self-replicating nanomachine used for other purposes, or possibly from a deliberate doomsday device.

Bill Joy’s “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us” was a widely-discussed article exploring the grey goo potential, and Nick Bostrom’s work on Human Extinction Scenarios is perhaps the most scholarly work on the subject. In fiction, the grey goo scenario is a premise of Michael Crichton’s novel Prey, as well as Kurt Vonnegut’s ’60s novel, Cat’s Cradle, wherein a fictitious, synthetic “ice-nine” poly-water converts every drop of water it touches into a solid. Placing one drop of ice-nine into a lake leads to the adjacent molecules of water in the lake to turn solid, and so on. Very soon, all the water on the planet has been turned into an ice-nine solid.

Basically, we’re talking about the possibility of a nanotechnological weapon of mass destruction. Unfortunately, I fear that such a possibility in some variant form will happen. It could take on a myriad of forms: a deliberate, synthetic contamination of livestock or some other food supply chain; the creation of an immune-resistant bacteria or virus that wipes out plant, animal, or human life; etc.

All that is required is:

  1. Sufficient Applied Science: Is it physically possible to create the grey goo? If yes, then check off this box.
  2. Availability of Knowledge Base: Is the know-how to build the grey goo widely available? The ill-founded decision to publish the genome of the 1918 flu virus is a harbinger. If the objective science allows it, and the Anarchist Cookbook is now available to on every muslim’s cellphone, we’re on our way…
  3. Economies of Scale: The production costs are a limiting parameter. But with the arc of capitalism one that lowers costs, and with Arabs sitting on sperm banks of oil, providing a medieval religious mindset with billions of dollars it’s culture would otherwise never possess, this is increasingly possible. 50 years from now, imagine a Kickstarter-type mechanism for eschatologically-oriented Muslims to fund the nanotechnological destruction of the West.
  4. Sufficient Will: Are there individuals, and even groups, with the will to initiate this destruction? Are there sufficient actors willing to intentionally destroy the world (or just the West for that matter?) What do you think?
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